New varieties of honeyberries "tick all the boxes" of convenience, health, taste and low labour input, according to one grower pioneering their production in Scotland. Stewart Arbuckle, of family-run Tayside soft-fruit grower PA Arbuckle & Sons, began growing the purple oblong fruit, from the northeast Asian native shrub Lonicera caerula, a relation of honeysuckle, three years ago. The farm now has 5ha of new varieties sourced from Canada, partly to supply other new entrant growers.
"We now have a co-operative of growers all over Scotland from the Borders to north of Inverness, but it takes around five years for the bushes to reach full yield," he tells Horticulture Week. "Our aim has been to get enough in the ground now so that we can take this to the market by 2020."
His interest in the fruit was sparked by a simple Google search. "I was looking for new possibilities for the farm that were cheap, easy to grow, high in value, healthy and with a low labour requirement given the uncertainty around labour supply."
Explaining the group's approach, Arbuckle says: "Our focus is on creating a premium, branded Scottish product, rather than simply competing with Polish-grown fruit. That's down to the varieties we are growing. They have Brix levels of 20 or more, compared to the 13-14 of the berries from Poland. They are richer and tastier."
Scotland is well-placed to capitalise on the fruit's potential, he says. "They need a certain amount of winter chill. They like a bit of sleep, more than other soft fruits, and these newer varieties are well-suited to northern climates." Indeed consultant Logie Cassells of Nova Scotia-based LoveHoneyberry Solutions, which is promoting their cultivation worldwide, told last month's World Berry Congress that they give northern growers an advantage because "they can't be grown in Spain and other regions where blueberries can".
But Jan Marc Schultz of fresh-produce importer SFI Rotterdam told the congress it would be "dangerous" to introduce the berries to the market too soon until suppliers can be confident of quality.
The newer varieties, such as Blue Banana and Happy Giant, come in early-, mid-, late- and very late-season forms, "but they are all within a month, so it's not a big harvesting window", says Arbuckle. Their growth habit is also an advantage. "They are more upright so better for machine harvesting, which we intend doing with the same machine we have for the raspberries. You can use a blackcurrant harvester as well, but the raspberry machine is kinder to them."
The berries' health properties will be key to winning public acceptance, he says. The nearby James Hutton Institute has carried out a phytochemical analysis of honeyberries and other soft fruits from the Arbuckles' farm. "Honeyberries came higher in antioxidants and polyphenols than other berries," says Arbuckle. "They are also high in vitamin C, potassium and micronutrients, so can claim to be a 'super-berry'."
Initially the group will target the frozen market, partly due to the short harvesting window. "They are ideal for smoothies, which is still a growing market." The fruit also has potential for fresh sales, while Arbuckle helped launch a "honeyberry gin" made at nearby Strathearn Distillery last autumn. This drew praise from Scotland's rural economy minister Fergus Ewing, who said: "Scottish soft fruit is already world-renowned, the honeyberry is an exciting addition to our growers' repertoire and craft distilleries are capitalising on the growing global appetite for our artisan products."
Arbuckle says: "It's a tannin-rich, grape-like fruit that is perfect for drinks and could have potential for agro-tourism. We are looking to do a few promotional things this year but we don't want to push it too hard too soon and disappoint people."